By Xavier Kreiss
"Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?" I used to think that professor Higgins’ desperation was funny. That was a long time ago. Today, I’m not sure.
What’s my problem? Not the evolution of British English. Not the slang, the lazy shortcuts, the torture inflicted on grammar and syntax. Not the way it often denotes an appalling ignorance. After all, similar horrors can be found in other languages too. They’re a (regrettable?) part of the natural life and evolution of any language. And of course, quite a few of the changes are to be welcomed. A very subjective subject, no doubt. But what I find bizarre, even rather worrying, is the way the Brits are, more and more, speaking a foreign (or semi-foreign) language. I refer, of course, to American English.
This form of the language is rich, inventive, constantly evolving, and fun. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it, and I’m all in favour of British English speakers adopting some of its words. But there is a difference between that and the wholesale swallowing of a foreign vernacular. Languages change constantly, and are enriched by the adoption of foreign terms. But when a vast mass of these all come from the same source, it has the opposite effect: the original language becomes poorer.
Instead of coining new words and phrases, UK English now tends to pick up the "ready made" variety from the United States. Not unlike buying pre-cooked meals from supermarkets (I plead guilty here) rather than go through the drudgery of cooking… Fine, from time to time. But imagine eating nothing but that, no home cooking any more. Or a language which innovates less and less, because the people who speak it prefer to adopt these ready-made words and expressions. These people would lose some – or a lot – of their individual character, of their identity. And the Americans aren’t rushing to adopt British English. The traffic is overwhelmingly one-way.
Does it matter? It depends on whether people want to keep their native language or are happy to "migrate" to another, however closely related the two may be. Kids fed an unending diet of American films and television series can be forgiven for using the words they hear. But it becomes more worrying when you hear the mainstream media spouting American terms, usually without knowing it.
Here is a partial list of americanisms I have heard (in many cases more than once) on the BBC, mostly Radio 4, from the mouths of presenters and journalists.
1) First, three monsters that are now so firmly settled that they’re probably impossible to get rid of:
2) Words that have been adopted as they are, displacing perfectly adequate British ones (a bit like those American grey squirrels squeezing out the British red ones…)
movie (what was wrong with "film"?)
truck (is "lorry" on the way out?)
3) Superfluous additions:
meet with ("Yesterday, Tony Blair met with president Bush")
visit with ("come and visit with us one day")
consult with ("we will be consulting with our allies")
join with ("he joined with his friend")
4) Sesquipedalian, or pretentious (like the term "sesquipedalian", come to think of it!) speech:
at this moment in time : 6 syllables when one ( "now" ) would suffice.
in excess of: ("win prizes totalling in excess of 7 thousand pounds!"
"I owed in excess of £ 25,000") what’s wrong with "more than"?).
5) Verbs that become transitive, when they shouldn’t be:
to protest a decision
to appeal a sentence
to debate someone ("the president debated his opponent in the race to the White house")
6) Verbs that lose their transitive status:
7) Nouns that become verbs:
to access ("he was unable to access his own front door")
to impact ("how will the decision impact people’s lives?")
8) Ugly and unnecessary neologisms:
societal (what’s wrong with "social"?)
9) Mutilated words:
10) Cod science: ie the use of scientific terms without knowing what they mean. One that irritates me is "claustrophobic". It’s impeccably English, but I suspect that its misuse is of American origin. It sounds clever to use a word that has four syllables – however, a room, or instance, cannot be claustrophobic. For that, you need a being capable of feeling a horror of small, enclosed spaces.
11) Pronunciation: do you remember the good old days when, for instance, the stress in the word "adult" was on the first syllable?
The list above is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg (a useful cliché, that).
I could also, for instance, mention the English novelist who (still on Radio 4) read a few lines from her latest book on a cultural programme. The text (remember: this was in a contemporary novel) included "like" used instead of "as though" or "as if". Even the Beatles avoided that. Think of it…"Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks like they’re here to stay"?
Am I making a narrow-minded judgemen… sorry, being "judgemental"? Well, perhaps. And again, languages evolve. No harm in that. But I wish the people who happily use these foreign expressions would refrain from laughing at us French for having adopted terms such as "le weekend". As it happens, this was quite a justified adoption, as there was no single equivalent term in French. There are far worse horrors : apparently, in a recent article in Elle about exercise and "keep fit" matters, the author asked rhetorically : "connaissez-vous le running?" (NB: Céline points out that this is all the sillier when you bear in mind that we already have a perfectly good French word: "le jogging").
After the first wave of nausea, one can take comfort in the fact that in such cases, the foreign influence is, at least, very visible. Whereas the two forms of English are similar, enabling the invader to approach in "camouflage". One could, of course, argue that it isn’t a problem. True. It’s a free society, people can speak any way they wish. Besides, they no longer have any problems in the United Kingdom.
They now have ishoos.
Further food for thought:
The subject of americanisms is covered at length in a fascinating web page from the Economist’s style guide for its journalists, but which it kindly makes available to the wider public.
The style guide in its entirety is a refreshing read.